Manufacturing AUTOMATION

Features Industry Watch Opinion
Closing the gap: minding what matters most


May 20, 2015 – We live in a precarious time. As some get richer, many others drift towards unsustainability, and our middle class is shrinking. When people slide into unsustainability, it often becomes the responsibility of government to meet their needs. Many people in the middle class don’t even realize it, but they too have slid into positions of unsustainability, where they can’t accomplish the critical things on their list without some form of government aid; things like subsidies for their children’s tuition, relief from debt, extra allowances or benefits just to make ends meet every month.

This is not a political issue, a left-wing or right-wing debate. This is first and foremost a people issue, a manufacturing issue, and a company issue. Many plants I visit pay their workers barely more than what they would make flipping hamburgers, or greeting shoppers at a big box store, and that is where this problem begins. People in our manufacturing companies add value — real value — with their daily activities. There’s a big difference between ‘serving’ and ‘adding value’; both are good and honourable employment activities, but the ‘adding value’ jobs have a far bigger effect in creating wealth in our economies than the ‘serving’ jobs do. This needs to be appreciated more in our society, and reflected more in what we pay our ‘value adding’ workers.

Let me continue for just a bit further. We live in a competitive manufacturing world, where we lose business and jobs to far off, low-cost labour regions. We can’t afford to simply raise our rate of pay. But that’s not a good enough reason to justify near minimum wage pay. There are other options.

One option that I’ve been advocating a lot lately is to change the management- worker paradigm. Going back to the beginning of the mass production era, we made it management’s job to measure and the workers’ job to do. Previous to the creation of this type of employment, a person could easily measure the fruits of their days’ efforts; how many acres he or she planted, cows they milked, miles of fences that were mended, or cords of wood that were chopped. Along with measurement came the satisfaction of accomplishment. Work was much more than simply a means to make a living, it provided meaning as well.

We’ve disconnected meaning with many of our factory jobs. The primary measurement of work that workers have now is how many hours they are in the building and on the job, not the job itself. There’s nothing wrong with paying people for the hours they work, but the accomplishment measurement we feed back to them should be directly tied to the actual work they’ve done, independently of how many hours they are in the building and being paid far. We believe the common expression “what gets measured, gets done”, but the problem is that we hold on to the belief that its management’s job to do the measuring and the workers’ job to do the doing.

To change this requires a different way of thinking, from the top down. Management feels entrusted with the corporation’s mandate and vision, and this is a role they hold on to dearly, because that responsibility gives them meaning. But, meaning and responsibility can be, and should be, shared. In the current model, information collected off the plant floor flows up, while only you-know-what flows down. If the people on the floor were more connected to their value adding roles and functions — i.e. the only activities that actually make the company any money — they would be more engaged employees; more satisfied and productive contributors. More productive means more profit, and more profit allows their value to be properly rewarded.

We can continue trying to compete with countries that consider human labor a commodity, or we can once again change the game. Our strength and differentiating advantage is our people; everyone bringing their “A game” and sharing responsibility, and meaning, more equally.

Manufacturing in North America created the middle class, and the middle class is what makes our countries great. I don’t believe that the solution to what ails us is in the hands of governments, or political parties, or schools, or organized labour. I think it begins with ‘us’, the manufacturing companies and workers that made our countries great. It’s time to get on a new page. With the information technology readily available today, there’s no reason that only some should measure, while others only do.

This column previously appeared in the May 2015 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.